(l-r) Zainab Jah as "Josephine," Carla Duren as "Sophie" and Pascale Armand as "Salima" in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of RUINED, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Liesl Tommy, playing in the Mandell Weiss Theatre November 16 - December 19; photo by Kevin Berne.

RUINED by Lynn Nottage, directed by Liesl Tommy. La Jolla in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, Lajolla, California. : (858) 550-1010 or online at .
November 16 – December 19, 2010


Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning “ripped from the headlines” play Ruined is strong support for the argument of theater as a forum for debate. Her emphasis on the inhumanities men inflict on women strikes a powerful cord leaving you drained and shocked at the continuing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within the confines of that troubled land, Nottage skillfully interweaves a tale of hope arising from fear and despair. With an accomplished South African director (Liesl Tommy), a talented production staff and a mostly superb cast the play is elevated to the must see category.

Man’s inhumanity to man has been a truism throughout history and in the present day war-torn Congo it is rampant. For more than a decade the ethnic and political conflict in the Congo seems end-less and more than five million people have been killed. Continually shifting bands of marauders, both government and rebels, all create a reign of terror. How does one survive in such a destructive environment?

Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), is the owner of a bar/brothel in a Congolese rainforest mining town that is an ominous crossroad of battles. Nottage takes a page from Brecht’s Mother Courage fashioning Mama Nadi as a survivor at all costs. She and her whorehouse cater to all that have money as long as they leave their bullets at the door. Survival is falsely assumed as long as she avoids taking sides. In an environment where violent rape is frequent, often ending with genital mutilation referred to as “ruined”, she justifies her actions of profiteering from prostitution by providing safe haven for her girls.

As Mama Nadi, Tanya Patano controls the stage just as her character dominates her girls and is able to keep the competing fighting factions of Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts) and the rebels at bay. Into this maelstrom travelling go-between peddler Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) a reformed alcoholic with designs on Mama brings two damaged young girls who have been subjected to months of rape. The educated Sophie (Carla Duren) has also been ruined leaving her with a chronic painful walk. Because of her physical deformity she is spared the degradation of “servicing” the men and her education elevates her to the job of bookkeeper.
Farmer’s wife Salima (Pascale Armand) after having been abducted and gang raped is rejected by her husband as damaged goods and she says, "he was too proud to bear my shame but not proud enough to protect me from it". When Salima's husband comes looking for her, waiting outside the bar for days just to see her, Pascale Armand delivers powerful monologues with veracity deserving a Tony award.

Another major character is proud Josephine (Zainab Jah) once a chieftain's daughter, now a master at pleasing the men and defusing potential deadly actions. She dresses to the nines and has dreams of moving into a city apartment with white man Mr. Harari (Joseph Kamal) a savvy entrepreneur unable to decide whose palm to grease - the rebels or the government. His underwritten role is an essential cog in Nottage’s play construction that leads to a touching, hopeful but unrealistic ending. Although the male roles are plot driven, it is the women’s responses to their horrendous actions that add verisimilitude to the violence. Adrian Roberts as the vicious Commander Osembenga fails to project the demeanor necessary to instill terror needed for the role. Kola Ogundiran, as the over sexed Laurent, maximizes his brief time upon the stage with an over-the-top performance.

Liesel Tommy’s superb direction paces the action with determined speed yet allows creeping insidious premonitions of future actions that dramatically explode, often leaving the audience in a state of shock and disbelief. He integrates the music of the electric guitar and drums seamlessly with Carl Duren’s sweet voice, as well as a perfect accompaniment for the diverse dance scenes. (Alvin Terry and Adesio Idukogbe under direction by Broken Chord. Choreography by Randy Duncan). Clint Ramos’s, scenic design, full of jungle foliage as a backdrop to Mama Nadi’s makeshift bar/brothel is outstanding with Lap Chi Chu’s lighting adding depth to sounds of jungle birds and oppressive rain.

Tonya Patano’s superb control of the stage with her cat like shift in character keeps the play on an even keel. However, the first act does not fully grab the audience and Mama Nadi’s motivation in the excellent act 2 seems contrived. The up beat hopeful ending seems to be an after thought especially since Oberon K.A. Adjepong’s lines do not project beyond the stage apron. Unlike Ashland, Oregon’s brilliant production of Ruined on a thrust stage that allowed the audience to be part of the action, the proscenium arch at La Jolla prevents any intimacy with the audience. Apparently director Tommy recognized this weakness and began act 2 with Mamma Nadi and the girls dancing down the isles to the stage accompanied by Broken Chord’s frenetic music.

Although the ensemble cast handle the vernacular dialog with strength and grace, more than a few lines are unintelligible. Ruined is a co-production (apparently with the same cast and artistic crew) with the Huntington Theatre in Boston and Berkeley Rep in the San Francisco Bay Area. I shall look forward to reviewing the Berkeley Rep production in January. Despite the perceived deficiencies, Ruined should not be missed. Running time about 2 hours and 10 minutes.
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